Saturday 19 January 2019

Rory needs patience to go with cunning plan

Rory McIlroy in pensive mood during his press conference at Shinnecock Hills yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
Rory McIlroy in pensive mood during his press conference at Shinnecock Hills yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

Brian Keogh At Shinnecock Hills

Rory McIlroy doesn't do rapier-like subtlety in Majors. He likes to poleaxe the opposition à la Congressional in 2011, when he won the US Open by eight strokes. Or the 2012 US PGA at Kiawah Island, which he also won the same obscenely brilliant margin.

In 2014, he had to do it the hard way in The Open at Hoylake, holding off Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia by two before sneaking past Phil Mickelson by a shot in the PGA at Valhalla a few weeks later.

If you're wondering if he can grind it out, the answer is a very tentative yes.

But with little to cheer about bar recovery from injury since he lifted the Wanamaker Trophy in the gathering gloom in Kentucky nearly four years ago, the apologetic rain that fell on Shinnecock Hills yesterday must have had the aroma of victory.

Rain has been a factor in all four of McIlroy's Major wins and while alarm bells start ringing when he talks about "being disciplined", perhaps an older, wiser and more needy McIlroy will have the patience to stick to the game plan.


His old stablemate Graeme McDowell knows how to win a US Open with sweating and tears having seen off the likes of Ernie Els, Mickelson and Tiger Woods at Pebble Beach eight years ago.

"Nobody wins the Open," Cary Middlecoff once said. "It wins you."

He might have been paraphrasing Bobby Jones's adage that "nobody ever wins the National Open, somebody else just loses it".

After the disaster of 2004, when the USGA allowed the greens to become unplayable, resulting in farcical scenes on Sunday when Retief Goosen's ball-striking mastery won the day, there's pressure on their leader Mike Davis to make sure this US Open is memorable only for the quality of the champion.

McIlroy - who tees off from the 10th hole at 1.02 Irish time alongside Jordan Spieth and Mickelson - says that now that he's back to full fitness; he's ready to regain the world throne. "There's clear road ahead," he told CNN recently.

He loves the course, spending the past few weeks in the Long Island area playing Shinnecock Hills and the other storied venues in Jay Gatsby country.

And yet it was a strangely subdued McIlroy who sat in the interview room here yesterday. Was it pre-US Open nerves? The pressure of expectation? Doubt? Zen-like calm? Maybe he knows that while the rain will take some of the sting out of the course, his greatest weapon remains the driver.

And in admitting that despite its 7,400 plus yards, he'll use the big stick sparingly, it's hard to get enthusiastic about him plodding his way patiently to Major No 5.

"I think the biggest challenge is being disciplined," he said of his task this week. "Just really sticking to your game plan, being disciplined.

"Even if you think you can get it down there and get yourself a nine-iron in your hand, it's not a bad thing to be back a little bit, put it in the fat part of the fairway, have a six or seven-iron into the green, and just play that way, play conservatively, put it in the right spots, and be patient.

"That's what this tournament is all about, and that's the mindset that I'm going to approach it with this week."

Perhaps he's been listening to average-hitter McDowell, who believes he too will have a chance if it comes down to iron-clad discipline. Like Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Woods and Mickelson, McDowell has the experience to play that cagey game.

But when asked to draw up an identikit picture of the winner, he pointed to recent Open Championship contenders rather than US Open specialists as the men to watch.

"They are all talking about bombers but I don't really see bombers around here," McDowell said. "I just don't see a ton of drivers for these guys.

"I think the big miss here is going to be big trouble. I see rough out there where you are not going to be able to advance the ball. I think it's unplayable stuff, some of it.

"I think you should look at guys who have played well in Opens the last four or five years - windy, firm conditions on an Open championship-style course."

Johnson and Stenson certainly fit the bill, and so too does Spieth, who might be distracted enough alongside playing partners McIlroy and Mickelson to forget his putting troubles.

As for McDowell, he's upbeat, declaring: "I feel as good as I have in a long time and I like the way this golf course sets up for me. I am not buying into the bombers, I am buying into a real plodder, a real disciplined guy who is going to get on the right side of the greens, and see par as a great score."

Lowry might just be ready to put four rounds together and when he says he's not afraid of any of the big guns when he's on his game, you believe him. It's getting on his game that's the challenge.

"In my opinion, it's probably the best world golf has ever been," he said reeling off the names in the world's top 10.

"Those guys are out on their own at the minute, but I feel like in any given week I could beat any of them. If I'm clever about my golf this week, I think I can do well."

If winning a Major is like riding a bike, McIlroy has no reason to feel apprehensive.

"It feels like it's been a while since I've been in the mix at this Championship," he said.

"With how my game feels, hopefully I can do the right things over the first few days and put myself in a position to win another one."

US Open,

Live, Sky Sports, 4.30

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